Thursday 5 December 2019

Mass appeal: how seats in the Dáil were won and lost from the back of trucks

Our Political Correspondent on famous Sunday morning stand-offs that defined past elections

Hang on to your hats: Supporters back Taoiseach Jack Lynch on campaign trail in 1977.
Hang on to your hats: Supporters back Taoiseach Jack Lynch on campaign trail in 1977.
John Downing

John Downing

How did we suddenly download ourselves into this situation? It used to be torchlight processions, often with the petrol-soaked flaming turf sod atop a pitchfork. There were monster meetings addressed by big bluff men with booming voices, in Crombie coats, belting out poisoned invective from the back of the lorry.

And there was the greatest contest of all: the verbal jousts - and even occasional physical jousts - at the after-Mass meeting.

Now all the talk is about something called the new media campaign. This comprises a bewildering series of interconnected elements often including a campaign website, a dedicated Facebook Page, and campaign Twitter account, at the very minimum.

You can add a dedicated Flickr account for the photographs and very probably a YouTube account. And if you hear a funny sound by now it's my mind going into automatic shutdown mode across a diverse set of platforms.

Can YouTube give the verve of this piece of Olympic abuse delivered off the back of the lorry at a rally in Castlebar and recorded by the Connaught Telegraph? "There are maggots and faggots and insects crawling out from the Coalition woodwork. But we have the pesticide to kill them."

The year was 1975, just 40 years ago, the attacker was Gerard Collins of Fianna Fáil, a future EU president, and the occasion was the by-election campaign which gave the political world one Enda Kenny.

Can new media match the science that was a series of after-Mass meetings? And yes, the after-Mass meeting involved a science all of its own.

The Mass list was acquired and the constituency divided into sections. "First Mass" was usually about 8am and "last Mass" about 12.30pm. So two or more crews were required to provide blanket cover if you were serious about your candidate at all.

A scout was posted in the church porch and told to rush out as the priest was nearing the final blessing. The early absconders would have also alerted the speaker and his accompanying crew to get ready on the back of the truck.

There were certain protocols about who went first on the after-Mass stomp. Proximity to the church precincts, and the feeling of discreet clerical supervision, often set a more careful tone. But not always.

Folklore recalls the Kerry council candidate outside Cahirciveen Church in the 1930s bemoaning the deplorable price of eggs. He scandalised the worshippers by loudly declaiming: "Sure at that price the hins would hardly bother their arses laying!"

Much more recently, history recalls the "Battle of Tang" which saw a dangerous face-off between two sets of rival Fianna Fáil supporters outside Tang Church on the Westmeath side of the border with Longford. It was the last Sunday before the General Election of February 1987 and the principals in this piece of brinksmanship were none other than a future Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, and a future minister, Mary O'Rourke.

The constituency of Longford-Westmeath was strictly divided and Mary O'Rourke's camp felt they had all the rights as Tang is in their county of Westmeath. Reynolds's supporters felt this was a "technicality" as half the Mass-goers had just slipped over the county bounds from their Longford turf and needed a bit of canvassing.

Both politicians recalled it in their later published memoirs. But Mary O'Rourke's account, unsurprisingly, loses least in the telling.

"I arrived at the church with my truck, my guys and my microphone. Shortly afterwards, Albert arrived with his truck, his guys and his microphone," she wrote in the memoir Just Mary.

Nobody noticed the scout emerging from the church. There was "an almighty stand-off." Words became jostles and blows were threatened. But then both principals saw sense and decided to share one of the trucks - alas, we cannot say with certainty which vehicle was used.

These days, could a clash in cyberspace lead to a sharing of one or more platforms? I'll wisely bow to geek expertise here.

But any politician will tell you that some of the verbal jousts in cyberspace have become increasingly personal and abusive.

However, that is another topic for another day.

Meanwhile, as a footnote to history, we all know that Gerard Collins gratuitous abuse did not work, as Kenny won the by-election, and the rest we know only too well.

To balance that, let it also be known that the "Battle of Tang" had a happy ending. Both Reynolds and O'Rourke were elected along with another party colleague, Henry Abbott.

Fianna Fáil had taken three out of four in that February 1987 Longford-Westmeath contest and both Reynolds and O'Rourke were appointed to Charlie Haughey's cabinet.

And there's yet another reminder in itself of how times have changed!

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